This is how a high-profile residential school renowned for imparting religious education to children deals with child sex abuse. The “spiritual learning” in the school involves a gruelling schedule of getting up early for the morning prayer, including nursery to class 5, and prayers in the evening, besides a binding dress code.
But when a complaint of a 13-year-old boy of Class 6 being sodomised by his seniors in Class 10 reached the school this week, the principal warned the victim’s parents against lodging a police complaint.
Refusing to even probe the matter, his parents were told by the principal that any attempt to bring disrepute to the school would not only invite expulsion of the child, but also the governing trust would ensure he did not get admission in any of its many branches or another school.
They were also warned that the case would be turned on its head and the blame for the offence put on the victim. The matter came to light when a government doctor examining the child found serious injuries to his private parts and asked the parents to ask the school to take action.
After treatment, the child is back to the residential school among the three seniors who allegedly sodomised him.
No counsellors in govt schools
Sexual abuse is happening to not only girls but also boys. It is happening not only at homes but also in schools. Irrespective of their age or place, children remain vulnerable.
School teachers are ill equipped to deal with the trauma of an abused child. But none of the government schools in Punjab have counsellors. After the incident of a girl’s sexual abuse was reported in a Muktsar government school a few years ago, a police complaint was lodged by the school and the accused arrested.
But with no psychological help to overcome the trauma, the girl had to leave the school finally.
Onus of reporting on parents
Punjab School Education Board chairperson Tejinder Kaur Dhaliwal says the primary duty of reporting abuse lies with the parents.
“If complaints come to us, we will ensure strict action, as we did in the Muktsar case. But owing to the psychological pressure, the child has either to leave schooling or change the school or is sent to a relative’s place to study. It only leads to further victimisation. To meet the psychological needs of children, the government schools should have specialised counsellors."
"To make a beginning, the chief minister has asked us to start recruiting them in the upcoming residential schools," she added.
In a meeting on May 7 to review the progress of six upcoming residential schools for meritorious students (those with a score of 80% or above in matriculation), CM Parkash Singh Badal had directed the education department to recruit teachers for the schools through tests and ensure that the members of the faculty included counsellors.
Tejinder claims that the infrastructural facilities in Punjab schools are better than many states and almost all schools now have separate toilets for girls.
No to sex education
The state education department has also woken up finally to the need for sensitising teachers. “We are planning to hold workshops and training programmes for teachers. The teachers trained will in turn train their colleagues in every district and block,” says Director of Public Instruction (DPI), Schools, Kamal Garg.
However, on starting sex education in schools, the department is non-committal.
“Starting sex education in schools is debatable. It may not be in the interest of children and can have undesirable effect,” says Garg.
PSEB chairperson Dhailwal agreed saying, "It should be started only after the child has achieved some level of understanding of the subject. It is not recommended for small schoolchildren."
But the NGOs working with schools say even a primary level student should know the difference between a good touch and a bad touch.
The Mind and Heart Foundation, which does emotional intelligence training programmes for school teachers in Chandigarh and Punjab, says both teachers and students need to be educated.
Recalling the feedback in one of the programmes held in Chandigarh, its co-founder, Sanjoli Chimni Pandey, when asked about the most important thing they taught the children, said most of the 700 new recruits in the government schools of Chandigarh said it would be to respect their elders.
“We told them that the first thing they need to teach children is to respect themselves. An abused child should not let the abuse continue, as he is taught to respect his elders. So even if one person from the community that children grow up and speaks up, be it parents, teachers, caretakers, neighbours or even bystanders, the silence on abuse can be broken,” she says.
Mantain secrecy, sensitivity
It is through child welfare committees under the women’s and child welfare ministry that countries such as Canada are able to ensure confidentiality in cases of child abuse.
A referral, which can come even through an anonymous complaint on the child helpline, brings the entire child protection network into action, from police to the child welfare officers.
Lack of secrecy and sensitivity in dealing with complaints in India is the biggest deterrent in reporting abuse, according to doctors.
The social welfare department can play the key role in ensuring that the child or the family do not undergo secondary victimisation.
“There should be trained social workers whose numbers should be available to all doctors. The social services department should liaison with affected children and the police. Planting trees for girl children is not the solution to sensitise society towards the problem,” says Simi Waraich, consultant psychiatrist at Fortis Hospital in SAS Nagar.